School Merger Bill Sits in Senate

Upper Valley Lawmakers Divided

White River Junction — The Vermont Senate is unlikely to mandate school district consolidation as prescribed by a bill passed in the House last week, but could require communities to consider the prospect.

The consolidation bill known as H.883 passed the Vermont House, 76-60, last Wednesday, with Upper Valley lawmakers supporting it by a 9-7 margin. The bill would consolidate the state’s 270 school districts down to 45 to 55.

Meanwhile, the chairman of the Senate’s education committee maintained that he could “virtually guarantee” that the bill would not be voted out of his committee onto the Senate floor because there would not be enough time left in the session, which could come to a close as early as Saturday, to give the bill “due diligence.”

“In view of the fact that it took the House four months to do their due diligence, that’s an indication of how complex these issues are, and we will not pass a bill out of our committee without due diligence,” Sen. Dick McCormack, D-Bethel, said in an interview Tuesday.

McCormack has called himself an “agnostic” on the bill, but has raised concerns about whether it would cut down significantly on education costs, as it aims to do, and whether there could be negative impacts to students.

Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, the Senate Republican leader whose district includes several Bradford-area towns, said he’s “hoping (the bill) does not pass” the Senate this year because he’d like to take more time to consider the bill and input about it from constituents, which he said has been “all over the map.”

“My guess at this stage is that I think it’s got low chances of passage because the Senate has not had time to digest what’s in the bill, and as a result, they have a very slim chance of getting it through the Senate,” he said, later adding, “I would very much like the time to sit down this summer and digest (feedback) I’ve received.”

In general, Benning said, he is in favor of consolidating supervisory union districts because the administrators “are not the people teaching our children. They are primarily businesspeople who are translating the mandates that the state and federal government issue.

“And I believe we as a state have the ability to minimize the necessary amount of translation that has to be done,” he said, noting that administrators are paid “expensively” in comparison to teachers, creating opportunities for cost-cutting.

However, Benning said, he’s opposed to shutting small schools or “consolidating school boards who do not wish to consolidate,” calling them the “anchors of our communities.”

McCormack said his committee has passed several amendments to the general education bill, H.876, that are meant to make progress on the issue of cutting school spending, including requiring supervisory unions to cooperate with each other for tasks such as purchasing equipment and supplies in an effort to reduce expenses.

Another amendment requires “local communities to at least consider the possibility of consolidation” or submit a report to the Agency of Education on why they would not choose to consolidate on their own, in which case “it’s not like (the agency) will force them if we don’t like their explanation,” McCormack said.

McCormack acknowledged that the compromise could appear “rather weak” to proponents of consolidation, but “on the other hand,” it could seem a step too far for people who oppose the measure.

“The point is no one has to do anything here,” he said.

Those amendments and others passed by the Senate Finance Committee have not yet been voted on by the full Senate, where passage would see them sent back to the House for a vote.

In the House vote on the consolidation legislation last week, the Upper Valley lawmakers who voted for the measure were Reps. Sarah Buxton, D-Tunbridge; Kevin Christie, D-Hartford; Alison Clarkson, D-Woodstock; Sarah Copeland-Hanzas, D-Bradford; Jim Masland, D-Thetford; Marjorie Ryerson, D-Randolph; Donna Sweaney, D-Windsor; Sheila Vowinkel, D-Hartford; and Phil Winters, R-Williamstown.

State Reps. John Bartholomew, D-Hartland; Chip Conquest, D-Newbury; Susan Hatch Davis, P-Washington; Patsy French, D-Randolph; Sandy Haas, P-Rochester; Mark Huntley, D-Cavendish; and Teo Zagar, D-Barnard, were opposed.

State Rep. Kathy Hoyt, D-Norwich, was absent and did not vote.

In an interview Tuesday, Masland said he voted for the bill despite it being “far from perfect” in part because he’s “reasonably confident that the Senate will be able to continue to improve it.”

“It will never do just to kill the bill because the issues that are driving the bill forward” will persist, he said. “We need to do something.”

He said the bill needs to better clarify what the role of local school boards would be under the plan.

Zagar said he voted against the bill because of what he called a “one-size fits all approach” and “no real guarantee for savings,” noting some contend that it could even increase expenses.

Zagar said his sense is that most people in his district and statewide want to see the Legislature address the property tax formula, not school consolidation.

“Every year our schools are struggling ... and there’s always talk of closing or consolidating,” he said. “I think that would really hurt our communities, and I think we should be doing more to encourage and support small community schools that are doing a good job.”

In the Senate, McCormack acknowledged that there are “rumors of a May surprise” and that “someone may figure out a way to do an end-run around the education committee.

“But I don’t think it’s all that likely,” he said. “This time of year, people do like to invent conspiracies ... but I don’t think the Senate would stand for that. I think the Senate wants to have education reform (come out of the Education Committee).”

Valley News staff writer John P. Gregg contributed to this report. Maggie Cassidy can be reached at mcassidy@vnews.com or 603-727-3220.